Abduction Issue: Govt Must Carefully Discern Intentions behind North Korea’s Proposals

Attempts to extract something in return by hinting at a willingness to make a concession to the other side is a common tactic used by North Korea, and it is necessary to be wary of this approach. It is important for the Japanese government to determine Pyongyang’s intentions.

In January, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who also is general secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, sent a telegram to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida expressing his sympathy for the damage caused by the Noto Peninsula Earthquake. It is unusual for North Korea’s supreme leader to send a message over a disaster.

When Kishida stated last month that the status quo must be changed boldly regarding Japan-North Korea relations, Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong, who serves as vice department director of the party’s Central Committee, issued a statement in which she commented, “I think there would be no reason not to appreciate his recent speech as a positive one.”

In addition, she stated that “if Japan … does not lay such a stumbling block as the already settled abduction issue … the day of the prime minister’s Pyongyang visit might come.”

North Korea’s reference to a summit may be aimed at driving a wedge into the trilateral relationship of Japan, the United States and South Korea, which are becoming more united. Besides, North Korea is suffering from severe food shortages and may be hoping to draw humanitarian aid from Japan.

However, the statement that the abduction issue has already been resolved remains unchanged from North Korea’s previous claims. To begin with, North Korea promised to investigate the abductees in 2014, but unilaterally suspended such activity in 2016 and has left the issue unattended since then.

If North Korea intends to resume negotiations, it would be reasonable for Pyongyang to work on the investigation of the abductees first and ensure their return to Japan. North Korea’s proposals, such as placing conditions on Kishida’s visit to North Korea, can hardly be accepted as sincere.

Last month, a group of families of abductees to North Korea and another group supporting them decided on a new policy, stating that they would not oppose humanitarian assistance and the lifting of Japan’s own sanctions if all remaining abductees return to Japan together.

They added the lifting of Japan’s sanctions to last year’s policy, which only allowed humanitarian aid, probably because of their earnest desire to move the situation forward while the generation of the victims’ parents is still alive.

But, there is a possibility that North Korea could seek various forms of support in exchange for the implementation of the investigation, as if exploiting the desires of the families and the predicament of the Kishida Cabinet, whose approval ratings have been slumping.

The Japanese government must maintain its basic policy of comprehensively resolving the abduction, nuclear and missile issues and resolutely deal with North Korea’s attempts to sway the Japanese government. To this end, it is essential for Kishida to stabilize the domestic political situation.

North Korea is providing large quantities of ammunition to Russia, which has engaged in aggression against Ukraine. If Japan were to be cajoled by North Korea’s sweet words and provide economic support, such as by lifting its sanctions, it would end up supporting Russia, which could jeopardize Japan’s position in the international community.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, March 8, 2024)